Susan Einzig - Maggie Fergusson, Tom’s Midnight Garden, When the Clock Struck Thirteen

When the Clock Struck Thirteen

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A lot of the stories I loved most as a child involved doors. Aged about 4, I suppose, I passed through the small, latched door in the hillside, into Mrs Tiggywinkle’s flagged kitchen, filled with the ‘nice, hot, singey smell’ of ironing, busy and reassuring. A few years later came the doors into Narnia, the Secret Garden and Wonderland, Bilbo Baggins’s ‘perfectly round’ green door with its shiny yellow brass knob ‘in the exact middle’, the door into the Yellow Dwarf’s home in the orange tree, and the dark door into Bluebeard’s bloody chamber.

Several years on again – looking now towards the end of school, and the wider world – I remember the thrill of reading about Charles Ryder’s early days at Oxford, and his ‘faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that great city’.

But reading to my own children, the door I’ve been happiest to pass through again is the door into Tom’s Midnight Garden – a door one can only imagine because, unlike most of the others, it is never described.

The plot of Philippa Pearce’s classic novel for children is simple. Tom Long, a boy of about 10, in quarantine for measles, is dispatched to spend the summer holidays with his childless uncle and aunt. They are a dreary couple – Alan Kitson, ponderous, literal-minded, quick-tempered; his wife, Gwen, kindly but cowed, and claustrophobically doting. Because of the danger of infection, Tom is forbidden even to answer the door to the milkman, but instead remains cooped up inside the Kitsons’ poky flat – one of a number of apartments carved awkwardly out of what was once a large Victorian house.

In an attempt to cheer him up, Aunt Gwen cooks enormous meals, swimming in sauces (‘whipped cream and rum butter and real mayonnaise’), which cause Tom to toss and turn in bed, sullen and wakeful. One night, unable to sleep, he counts as the grandfather clock in the hall strikes thirteen. Creeping down to investigate, he opens the back door that normally leads to a strip of paving and some communal dustbins, and finds himself instead in a beautiful, rambling summer garden.

The garden is there, waiting for him as the clock strikes thirteen, every night, and in it he meets a little girl, Hatty, an orphan ward who is, like him, lonely and in need of a friend. Together, night after night, they play in the garden, climbing trees, making bows and arrows, wandering among the cacti and the creepers in the greenhouse, breathing in the warm, stifling air. Occasionally they argue, and when they do it is almost always about which of them is real, and which a ghost. But the arguments blow away like thistledown: Tom and Hatty need one another so badly that they cannot afford to dwell on the oddness of their friendship.

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